It is no secret that employees frequently use their work computer to access the internet for non business-related purposes. A recent Zoomerang survey indicated that nearly a quarter of U.S. workers spend three to five hours a week surfing the web at work. Employees who participate in social media like Facebook and Twitter do not confine “facebooking” and “tweeting” to their homes. A 2009 Computerworld article cited a survey of 237 corporate employees showing that 77% of workers who have a Facebook account use it during work hours.
While the jury is still out on the effect this conduct has on a company’s bottom line, some studies indicate that such use is harmful to employee productivity. The same Computerworld article cited above reported that productivity drops 1.5% at companies that allow full access to Facebook. Conversely, an outright prohibition of access to the internet for non-business purposes can have a negative effect by lowing office morale and can result in employees turning to other sources for their social media fix, such as their smartphones.
Employers who lack a specific policy regarding workplace internet usage for non-business purposes should consider implementing one that allows employees reasonable internet usage within restricted timeframes (i.e. while on break, during lunch) and that clearly identifies permissible uses. Aside from the obvious benefits on staff productivity, there are practical legal advantages to having such a policy, particularly in the area of employee entitlement to unemployment compensation benefits upon termination.
A recent Pennsylvania unemployment compensation benefits case at the intermediate appellate court level highlights the importance of establishing a clear workplace policy that defines what is and is not acceptable with regard to internet usage on the job.
In Chapman v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, a nurse used her cell phone to post comments on her Facebook page about a coworker who had accidentally soiled her pants at work. At the time she made the Facebook postings, she had been distributing medications to patients. She was terminated for violating a workplace policy prohibiting the use of cell phones while on duty, however it seems clear from the context of the case that her termination was a result of the Facebook postings she made at the time she was performing a safety-sensitive job duty.
At issue was not the legality of her termination but rather her eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits. As an at-will employee, she could be fired for any reason or no reason at all. However, when it comes to unemployment compensation, the standard for denial of benefits is whether the employee engaged in willful misconduct, such as violating a clear work rule. The court determined that the employee’s violation of the employer’s work rule prohibiting the use of cell phones on the job was evidence of willful misconduct, thus holding her ineligible for benefits.
In this case, the employer dodged a bullet. The employer did not have an internet/social media usage policy, and instead was forced to rely on its cell phone policy as the basis for its challenge to employee’s entitlement to unemployment compensation benefits. A workplace policy banning “Facebooking” while engaged in safety-sensitive job functions would have likely saved the company the expense of litigating the unemployment compensation eligibility challenge.
Employers who seek to implement a workplace social media/internet usage policy can find sample policies on the internet that can be tailored to meet the employer’s individual needs. A simple Google search for “workplace internet policy” yields a wide variety of useful samples. Employers should have an attorney review the policy prior to implementation to insure that the policy complies with applicable laws, such as federal labor laws.
If you should have any questions, please contact Adam Vahanian at [email protected] or 412.242.4400.